Songs of Ourselves: Grief, Hope, and Sufjan Stevens

Sufjan Stevens. Black and white version of image via Tammy Lo/flickr.com
Sufjan Stevens. Black and white version of image via Tammy Lo/flickr.com

Sufjan Stevens’ newest album, Carrie & Lowell (out now), is a heartbreaking meditation on personal grief. It’s also joyful, baffling, and delicately mundane. 

In the spirit of a listening party, a few of us sat down to play through the album, sharing liner notes and meditations on the songs that grabbed each of us. Conclusion: it's really, really good. Stream Carrie & Lowell here, and listen along with us below.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Death With Dignity” — Tripp Hudgins, ethnomusicologist, Sojourners contributor, blogger at Anglobaptist

Tripp: I love the first song of an album. I think of it as the introduction to a possible new friend. “Where The Streets Have No Name” on U2’s Joshua Tree or “Signs of Life” on Pink Floyd’s Momentary Lapse of Reason, that first track can be the thesis statement to a sonic essay.

So, when I get a new album — even in this day of digital albums or collections of singles — a first track can make or break an album for me. I sat down and listened attentively to “Death With Dignity.” It does not disappoint. With it Stevens introduces the subject of the album — his grief around troubled relationship with his mother and her death — as well as the sonic palate he will use throughout the album.

Simple guitar work, layered voicing, and a little synth, the album is musically sparse. The tempo reminds me of movies from the nineteen sixties or seventies where the action takes place over a long road trip.

Catherine Woodiwiss: I was thinking road trip, too. There’s real motion musically, which, given a claustrophobic theme and circular lyrics, is a thankful point of release. It’s a generous act, or maybe an avoidant one — he could have made us sit tight and watch, and he doesn’t quite do it.

Julie Polter: This isn’t a road movie, but the reference to that era of films just made me think of Cat Stevens’ soundtrack for Harold and Maude, especially “Trouble.” (This album is one-by-one bringing back to me other gentle songs of death and duress and all the songs I listen to when I want to cry).

Tripp: At 0:30 — “I don’t know where to begin.” It’s a little creative rhetoric, a turn toward the work that comes before the album. Here he offers it to us as part of the project. How does one even begin to sing of this grief?

The song is riddled with image after image: a desert, a tired old mare, amethyst and flowers, apparitions, cedars, willows, and songbirds all invoked to be the muses to help Sufjan through the album; 1:42 — “What is that song you sing for the dead?”

The parallel of the old mare with the desert had me wondering if he wasn’t invoking America’s “Horse With No Name,” and thus other soundscapes from other artists. It’s hard to say, but there’s enough of this kind of referencing throughout the album that I’m encouraged to take the bait.

2:30 — He gives us the thesis for his whole album: forgiveness. “I forgive you, mother.” He is haunted by her. He seeks her but can only find her ghost.

Catherine: Stevens’ whisper-voice is so soothing it’s easy to miss most of what he’s saying (honestly, I find it hard to get into — so polished and distant for what he’s actually saying, a contrast I find opaque more than compelling.) But this caught me — forgiveness is a hard thing to give even when there’s a chance at reconciliation, but he’s trying it anyway.

Julie: I’m with you on the deceptively soothing tone of this entire album and Stevens’ breathy voice. It seemed, well, a little boring on first listen. Then the more startling lines jumped out and I leaned in to listen more closely, and then I fell in.

The last words he sings here are “you’ll never see us again” — just an interesting flip from the usual perspective of the person who’s grieving, where you’re trying to fathom never again seeing the person who has died. But the dead lose out too, in this telling.

Tripp: 3:30 — I was honestly surprised by this turn to the layering of voices. The falsetto a cappella offering is beautiful and haunting. But after the simple picked guitar work, it’s a surprising turn, but it fits with the whole of the song.

The first track is an invocation, a call to the muses, a call to his mother, a plea from darkness and silence to find a way into sound and lyric. Sometimes there are simply no words one can offer. There are only sighs.

"The Only Thing" — Julie Polter, Culture Watch editor for Sojourners Magazine

 

Julie: “I forgive you, mother” is a grace note that in some ways makes the raw pain and beauty of the rest of the album more bearable. The songs that follow don’t refute it, but they stay true to the experience of grief after the death of a complicated parent: Forgiveness doesn’t reknit what is irreparably frayed or give a free pass through the anguish of grieving.

That comes through on “The Only Thing,” which opens in the tension between contemplating suicide and the small “signs and wonders” that convince Stevens, just barely, that there’s more than the current pain.

00:40 — “The only thing” keeping him from swerving a car into a canyon: The stars above, specifically the constellation “Perseus aligned with the skull.” I persist in mishearing this as “mercy aligned with the skull,” a much weaker visual than stars and the mythical Pegasus arising from the blood of a slain monster. Still, I do hope for mercy to align with my own skull.

Catherine: Well now that you've said it, I'm betting I’ll start to mishear it that way, too. A closer visual, but I don’t think a weaker one.

Tripp: I love the turn to the mythical in this song. Signs and wonders. He looks for a cosmic intervention for his grief. So often our grief can feel mythical, our own stories take on the weight of the epic. This is deep, dark grief.

Julie: 1:07 — We’re to “bury the dead where they’re found,” but that brings no peace. Instead Stevens sings one of the most poignant lines of the album: “I wonder did you love me at all?” In grief, all the hardest questions demand their due.

At 2:07, a bridge with a new question: “Should I tear my eyes out now?” — this because everything reminds him of his mother and losing her (without really ever having had her).

Catherine: “…Everything I see returns to you somehow.” Whew. That’s a desperate frustration that can live in any broken relationship of significance. Your words expressed by someone else, your heart feeling like a delayed replay of someone else's. The result is a perpetually frustrated identity, an internal haunting that has to be acknowledged somehow. No wonder he wants to tear his eyes out.

Tripp: Oedipus. What kind of love is this that he has for his mother? I keep thinking of Peter Gabriel's album Us where he's sharing all of his deep Jungian work. "Digging In The Dirt" was playing in my head as I was listening to this track.

Julie: At 2:56, the music swells here a little, not triumphantly, but in this song’s back and forth between utter despair and tentative hope, this set of verses is on the side of hope, or at least belief in “God’s grace.” This seems just a slender thread, a tether to something beyond the present suffering, but not lifting him from it.

At 3:50-on — the closing verses return to the body-rending instead of garment-rending: Should he tear out his eyes, his arms (which long to touch his mother), his heart (because “everything I feel returns to you somehow”)?

Tripp: Yes. This.

Julie: What I appreciate so much about this song is, as with the rest of the album, the honesty about the jaggedness of grief. The “only things” of beauty and mystery and God may be saving graces, but in a given moment, they may also be just barely enough.

"Fourth of July" — Catherine Woodiwiss, Associate Web Editor for Sojourners

Catherine: I’ve been carrying around U2's “Mothers of the Disappeared” this week (we're a U2 bunch, huh?). It’s an overlooked track from Joshua Tree — for all their symphonic wailing into the universe, “Mothers” is a simple guitar line and a barely-audible keen. Sufjan takes the same tack especially on “Fourth of July” — quiet, close, bedside.

It’s very psalmic, in the agony-and-ecstasy sense, but disguised as gentle meditation.

Tripp: It also lilts along like it's a joyful thing and it's just not. This whole album is a juxtaposition of sonic joy and lyrical devastation. The push-pull of this one is almost like a lullaby (says the expectant father) in timbre and yet so very sad. I love this song.

Catherine: How does mourning start? Like this — as disorientation and noise. It’s almost comforting in its galactic, steadily swelling impact.

1:10 — “We’re all gonna die.” That’s a hell of a thesis statement, especially as an answer to the question, that eternal signifier of human optimism, “And what have you learned...?” It’s unsavory and unholy and deeply sad.

It’s also refreshingly blunt. As it happens, I’m listening to this on the anniversary of the sudden passing of a very loved one. (Coincidental timing, and maybe not the wisest — this is tough stuff even when the sun is shining and everyone is happy and healthy.) “We’re all gonna die” is hardly comfort, but today it strikes me as a worthy credo nonetheless. What is Good Friday about, after all, if not that even the Architect can die by His own creation?

At 1:40 — “With a halo at your head/was it all a disguise like Junior High/where everything was fiction” — I grew up going to church, so my mind goes right to Christmas pageants (where yes, I wore plenty of plastic halos and the nativity scenes included more than a little fiction). Great detail.

Julie: Stevens is so good at flipping observations that could be read as sentimental on their heads. Not cynically, just capturing that ambiguity of our perceptions, especially when strong emotions are at play.

Catherine: "Did you get enough love, my little dove, why do you cry?" He’s singing to his mother, ostensibly, but I wonder if he isn’t also singing to his own soul. Our fragile souls are rather bird-like, after all, and he's casting about for the right winged creature (hawk; loon; dragonfly.) Some have suggested the Biblical terminology for the Holy Spirit that we’ve inherited as “dove” was, in fact, something closer to “feral pigeon.” Which...yes.

2:20 — “What did you learn from the Tillamook Burn, or the Fourth of July?...My little Versailles.” Now we’ve also got a deeply political song — failed treaties, forest fires, militant patriotism. What have we learned from history? Is it really just that we’re all going to die?

Julie: I’d vote for that (I sense a pattern). Which, I guess, when you’re asserting the ultimate limits of institutions and human constructs is a political statement, too. But it also so true to a certain cycling of grief, when — like it or not — a certain futility seems to infuse everything.

Catherine: It’s becoming a mantra. He’s only saying what he knows to be true, and once you arrive at a truth you can’t help but see it everywhere.

Tripp: Facing the mortality of those we love often causes us to look at our own mortality. I wonder, when I read other reviews, how this album will be received by the public. It's so brutal. There's none of the Katy Perry escapist glee. There's not thrash metal rebellion. There no righteous indignation like as The Roots offer. No, it's just devastation. Will any of these songs actually get radio play? Maybe this album will find its audience in other ways than the public airwaves.

Catherine: I think it already has. And it’s definitely weird and sort of morbid to imagine him on tour with a concert hall full of people singing, “We’re all gonna die” over and over — but … also true. There’s power in claiming that.

Stevens has talked about the “artless” work that went into this album and how unreciprocal the process felt compared with usual give and take of songwriting. Grief gives an infinite amount of source material, but something about the impassive finality of death makes the writing feel a little more like going headlong into a dead end. Sending messages into a black hole.

I think this is what moves us to tell the hardest stories, in sacred texts and in songs of ourselves. Forcing these stories out of ourselves can be an exhausting, unredeeming process. In sharing them and allowing others to hear and respond and join in is where some degree of resurrection happens, I think.

 

Image via Tammy Lo/flickr.com. Some visual effects altered.

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